It's a brisk, wet morning in Ashbourne, England, and the pint of
ale being poured by the bartender at the Green Man pub has the
tawny tint of an heirloom watch. He pushes the glass to a burly
yob in a ripped rugby sweater who shouts, "To Up'ards!" At the
other end of the bar a doughty yob whose T-shirt sports a
snarling British bulldog raises a pint the lovely walnut color
of fine old furniture. "To Down'ards!" he barks.
These yobs are not toasting Midlands pharmaceuticals but rather
Royal Shrovetide Football, an ancient game that annually pits
Ashbournians from north of the River Henmore against their
counterparts down under. A sort of eight-hour rolling brawl, it's
a cross between rugby, soccer and civil war.
Every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in this Georgian market
town, hundreds of players lock themselves into an enormous
scrum--or hug--then kick and squirm their way through narrow
streets, fishponds and irate gardeners' flower beds. In a series
of hard-fought scrimmages that are beautifully brainless if not
heroic, the grunting, tussling, spluttering tangle of arms and
legs scrambles for possession of a 3 1/2-pound, cork-filled
There are no referees, no penalties and no holds barred. People
have been known to crack ribs and break legs--and that's just the
spectators. Fierce private fistfights flare up about every three
minutes. "Shrovetide football is called a friendly game," said
Mark Heath, one of the dozens of bobbies on hand for this year's
festivities, "but it's really about settling old scores."
Rules are few: Churchyards or cemeteries are off-limits; the
ball cannot be conveyed by a motorized vehicle; play must end by
10 p.m., regardless of whether either side has scored;
manslaughter is strictly prohibited. In the old days the goals
were two water mills, each a mile and a half from the center of
town. You "goaled" the ball by tapping it three times against
the mill wheel. Eventually the mills were torn down, and in 1920
stone posts were erected--in the Henmore. To goal the ball, you
have to get soaked.
Similar games are played in towns throughout the British
Isles--in Kirkwall, on Scotland's Orkney Island, it's called the
Ba' Game and takes place each Christmas and New Year's Day; the
Cornish towns of St. Ives and St. Columb come out for Hurling
the Silver Ball. Though the origin of such contests is strongly
disputed, many believe they date from before the Norman Conquest
and that the ball was originally a head, tossed to the crowd
after a public execution. In 1314 Edward II tried to ban the
competitions from London; 35 years later Edward III attempted to
outlaw the game altogether because it was disturbing his archery
practice. In the 16th century Philip Stubbs described Shrovetide
football as "bloody murdering practice, rather than a fellowly
sport or pastime." Indeed, the Ashbourne event was briefly
banned in 1878 after a man drowned, and 18 landowners signed a
notice forbidding the game to take place on their property.
Still, the sport survived and even prospered, and when the
Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, tossed out the ball (called
"turning up") at the opening ceremony in 1928, the event
officially earned the designation Royal Shrovetide Football.
Prince Charles was enlisted as royal turn-up for this year's Ash
Wednesday game but begged off to attend the funeral of his aunt
In the hours before this year's Shrove Tuesday match,
shopkeepers boarded their windows in fearful anticipation of the
mayhem about to erupt. Just after noon some 400 locals gathered
at the Green Man for the traditional pregame meal of tomato
soup, roast beef and boiled potatoes. They sang the Shrovetide
Song, the chorus of which goes:
It's a good old game,
Deny it who can,
That tries the pluck of an Englishman.
By 2 p.m. the diners had reassembled at a nearby parking lot,
where the turn-upper, local dignitary Simon Plumbly, stood on a
plinth and lobbed the ball above the heads of a mass of waiting
players, their voices joined in a primal roar. A knot of the 50
bravest swallowed up the ball, while another 200 pushed and
pulled on the fringes. From then on, the brightly colored ball
was rarely seen, lost beneath the flailing-limbed carnage of the
heaving hug. You could follow the ball's progress by watching
the steam rise off players in the middle of the scrum.
The sea of writhing bodies flowed ponderously through fields and
alleys, rocking and nearly tipping a television van in its path.
For long minutes the players piled up, unmoving, then suddenly
hurtled off in a new direction. After two hours of slipping and
scrambling in an unsteady rain, the Up'ards finally surged
upward toward their goal. At 9 p.m. they rumbled down the slip
at Sturston Mill and hit the water amid wild cheers from the
citizens of upper Ashbourne. Forty minutes of splashing later, a
tree surgeon named Kirk Maskell goaled the winning ball.
It was yet another downer for the Down'ards, who have had one
victory in the last 11 matches. Things did not go much better for
them on Ash Wednesday. They drove the ball to the town's main
drag, Church Street, past Hotspur & Nimrod antiques, Wigley's
Shoes, the Ashbourne Gingerbread Shop, Nigel's Top Quality
Butcher and M.J. Smyllie Greengrocer & Florist. But the Up'ards
regained the upper hand, and by 5 p.m. the ball was back at the
parking lot, where it pretty much stayed. The Wednesday game
ended in a draw.
News of yet another Down'ard disappointment delighted Doug
Sowter, the sport's Benedict Arnold. Since his grandfather Sam
scored in 1898, Sowters have accounted for 17 Shrovetide goals.
All but the last were for the Down'ards. Doug's infamous 1972
goal remains a blot on the family escutcheon.
He was leaving for the Green Man that year when his Up'ard-born
mum asked, "If you get a chance, will you goal me a ball for the
Up'ards?" Doug's fateful reply: "Sure." As often happens in these
tales, Doug got a chance and ran with it. Everyone expected him
to head for the Down'ard goal. "Instead," he recalls, "I headed
for the Up'ard's." He jumped into the river and tapped the stone
Doug's dad, who had goaled in 1925, '31 and '48, wouldn't speak
to him for a fortnight. His aunt, Tet Sowter, refused to speak
to him or his father ever again. In the 30 years of Shrovetide
since, Sowter has endured hundreds of score-settling kicks and
dozens of purposeful punches. Where do the blows land? He gives
a lopsided grin and says, "See this nose?"
murdering practice." Not much has changed since.